When the Wheelers came to town!

Mortimer Wheeler in the 1950’s.

Mortimer Wheeler (1890 – 1976) and Tessa Wheeler (1893 – 1936) were archaeologists who excavated the Roman remains of Verulamium (now St Albans).  They met while studying at UCL (University College London), married in 1914 and worked on many archaeological excavations in the 1920’s.  They also established the Institute of Archaeology.

In 1929, St Albans City Council purchased a 104 acre site from the Earl of Verulamium with the aim of investigating the archaeological remains.  The Wheelers were invited to excavate the site and took on this role for four years from 1930 to 1933, before the fifth year of excavation went under the control of the archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon.

With Mortimer focusing his attention on potential Iron Age evidence, Tessa concentrated on excavating inside of the city walls.  During the excavations there were frequent guided tours of the site and the media-savvy Mortimer was filmed recovering finds by Pathé news.

Tessa Wheeler at the Verulamium excavation.

Tessa spent much of her career in the shadow of her husband, like many earlier female archaeologists.  Many contemporaries considered “the Wheelers” to be a team; with some considered her to be the more talented field archaeologist.  The final excavation report on the excavations of Verulamium; ‘Verulamium: A Belgic and Two Roman Cities’, published in 1936 and written jointly by them.

Spurred on by the quantity and the significance of the finds, plus the level of public interest, the Council decided to invest in a permanent museum to display the finds (now the Verulamium Roman Museum).

Tessa suffered from ill-health, including blackouts and gastric problems.  She may have exacerbated her symptoms through overwork and a desire to meet the exacting demands of her husband.  After a minor operation in early 1936, she became seriously ill and died from a pulmonary embolism aged only 43.

The Roman ‘kaleidoscope’ mosaic floor design which was left in situ and is now in the Hypocaust building.

Mortimer went onto be one of the most important British archaeologists of the twentieth century, responsible for successfully encouraging British public interest in the discipline and advancing methodologies of excavation and recording.  In 1952, he was invited to be a panelist on the new BBC television series, ‘Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?’.  The show featured three experts in archaeology, anthropology, and natural history being asked to identify artefacts which had been selected from various museums.  The show proved popular with British audiences, and would air for six more years.

Two Pathé clips with Mortimer Wheeler explaining the excavations at Verulamium:



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